Karnan recently celebrated its 50th day since release and the film has been widely discussed and debated. Director Mari Selvaraj with his second film shattered both expectations and the kind of cast he carried from his first venture. His first film, Pariyerum Perumal, brought in the story of a law student who places his need for education above personal humiliation and danger to life. Many people used Mari's Pariyerum Perumal to pitch him against PA Ranjith and his assertiveness of oppressed people fighting back against injustices happening around them. The argumentative line was - PA Ranjith's ideology is violent and not feasible and that the oppressed should behave like Perumal in Mari's movie.
Then came Mari Selvaraj with his second outing, Karnan, that shook the Tamil film industry. Working with big names in India brings in its own set of challenges which include changing the script to suit the hero's image and accommodating scenes for their fan base. Thanks to the trust that Dhanush placed on director Mari and his powerful storytelling ability, the star becomes a larger-than-life character in a film that goes beyond the hero's journey. Karnan is the story of how an entire village finds a way to stand on their feet and the struggle to achieve it.
For the Oppressed that Don't Fit Into the Oppressor's Imagination
Everyone has expectations on 'how' Dalits should exist in society and not just 'where'. Society has invisible caste lines that are so normalised that we don't even see them but are expected to follow them.
For example, imagine offices, schools, colleges, malls, and other social spaces where the housekeeping staff have a room of their own, a table, and a chair. Now think of how odd that image is to you because we have never seen it. Yet, here is Karnan, celebrating on the road like how most other people in this society do at some point in their lives and you can see the visible anger that it draws.
The oppressor always gets to determine what is essential and what is not. The village elephant is seen as an unnecessary object in the hands of the oppressed. Karnan, on the elephant, is seen as a place that he should not be sitting. The same is translated in today's society. Like the countless Dalit grooms on a horse that were killed, like how police treat Dalit youngsters on roads with expensive bikes. Just like Karnan's elephant and celebration, everything that these kids do is still put under a microscope and questioned.
From our own lives, the clothes of our sisters, our mothers, the choice to send their sons to engineering colleges, their daughters for a Master's degree is questioned by the society around us. We have spent most of our lives living to these expectations that were shoved down by this casteist society onto our parents, then onto us. Our dream to pursue arts is still seen through the eyes of the police looking at Karnan on the elephant. They look at it as not just arrogance, but an oppressed that has crossed the lines of a casteist society.
The Development of Any Society Lies In the Mobilisation of Its Women
The confinement of women to spaces is one of the big pillars that upholds patriarchy. While most want to condense the plot of Karnan to wanting a bus stop, the truth is farther from just that. Multiple women characters in the film seem to move for different reasons and Mari Selvaraj has written this with high intent.
Mobility ensures better healthcare for women
Karnan begins with a death. A death that could have been avoided if there was a single bus that stopped in their village. It also explains how the little girl's death is not the first one to happen in the community. The other important scene is where none of the buses stop even for a pregnant woman until someone stops it by force. You will find multiple news reports of a husband carrying his dead wife on a bicycle, and you wonder if this is the same India that boasts of its space program.
Mobility ensures education for women
Providing transportation means that a girl child can find her way to school, to colleges that are in a different town or city. The most beautiful thing about the two political parties in Tamil Nadu is how they focused on the overall development of women. I remember the time when the TN government gave free bicycles to school girls. In most homes, that cycle became the source of firewood, water, and money.
In 2021 the first official signature from the office of the Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu was for free bus service for women.
Mobility ensures protection of women
The threat of sexual abuse prevents so many young girls from getting an education. A woman that has achieved mobility becomes more aware of her society, brings in stronger reforms to it, and makes it better. Free buses mean a woman can walk away from an abusive partner at any time with zero money.
Things that Hold the Oppressed Back
For the first time in decades, this generation has received an education, found jobs in bigger places, an opportunity to travel abroad, and lives a life that couldn't have even been dreamt of. There is a dark side to this development, there is a feeling of survivor's guilt that plagues us, even psychologists don't understand this.
For every person who actively writes about casteism and its oppression, you might expect our households to be super assertive and experts in social justice. The truth is that we have always been asked to not speak about caste or its oppression. They tell us to remember the roots but not talk about them because people will find where we are from even through all this English. Hence, we don't talk about it.
There was a deeper meaning to me in the headless God and headless portrait shown in the movie. In most of our families which now have first-generation graduates, the other men are not state-appointed leaders, or social leaders, or settled in managerial positions in big companies. So when we grew up, they asked us to study, work, make our lives better, find better opportunities even when it meant leaving behind our relatives, our siblings, and sometimes our own parents. Just like how Karnan had to leave his village behind just so his family can find development at the expense of his village being destroyed.
So, it's not just the oppressor but our own families too take away our voices for the promise of a better tomorrow.
What we fail to understand is how opportunities are still being denied to us. Jobs, promotions, appraisals, and relationships are denied and we are left with nothing but self-doubt or a constant feeling of self-worthlessness.
That line when they ask Karnan, "Why don't you ask patiently?", that line hit like a brick wall. Our anger has been either demonised or dismissed but never recognised. Because if they recognised our anger, they will have to accept how flawed and broken, this violent system we call society is. They will all hold us back till we accept that this is our society because it benefits those in power. Just like the donkey whose legs are constantly tied inside its own village.
The Absurdity of Names
If your caste name is not your surname, if you are from a different religion and it shows in your name, they will have other methods to identify your caste. The first question is usually, "What is your father's name? What does he do for a living". The second is, "Where are you from, your native place, which street?". There is a history behind these questions, history of forced occupation, caste gentrification in cities, and social exclusion in villages.
Most people in Tamil Nadu don't even have second names. There have been jokes about this but mostly attacking our mothers and their chastity. I hate how nobody questions the ego of men that is erected by an imaginary second name that stood on the decaying stench of caste.
In Tamil Nadu, the self-respect movement stood tall and proud through Periyar and many leaders that have taken up the path. Karnan showed the struggle it took, the blood that was shed, and the lives that were lost just so we could have this name. Karnan asks to wear your name proudly, to wear it like a king, like royalty, to say it strongly enough that people realise that our names do not need a caste name to prove their validity. Our casteless names are not absurd, their caste names are.
The Five Aspects of State-sponsored Violence
There are many faces of state-sponsored violence. The evident ones are the incidents of police brutality. People often see police and the public as binaries in society. We forget that police at times are empowered with not just state trusted powers but also caste dominance. This is not a myth anymore, this has become more than evident with the custodial killings of Jayraj and Felix in 2020. It also has religious layers to it like both the aforementioned killings and the killing of an 18-year-old vegetable vendor, Faisal Hussain in Unnao, Uttar Pradesh. But we absolve every state-appointed power of all crimes and often make them heroes and romanticise the brutality that is shown in great detail with films like Singham, Dabangg, and Darbar to name a few.
The second aspect of state-sponsored violence usually existed in older days. There is an old truth that is talked about in villages that people who get beaten by the police in lockups do not survive for long. There have always been talks that the police know how to beat someone where they do not die immediately but years later. This is true because police brutality in lockups is sadistic to a point where it is just intentional murder. Visaranai by Vetrimaaran covers some aspects of this. Without proper hospitals and medication, most people who have been exposed to police brutality die a slow and painful death. Yogi Babu tells Karnan the same towards the end of the film and the same happens. Police brutality is highly normalised in our society. We all know people who laugh while reacting to videos of police beating the public on Facebook during the lockdown.
The third aspect of state-sponsored violence is direct and intended. Just like the collector who gave his permission to ransack and beat up a whole village. It is scary to even think that this was based on true incidents, but not surprising because it has happened over and over again. I don't have to go into the past, I can quote something as recent as 2018 where 13 people were shot and killed in Tuticorin just for demanding clean air and water. They were all killed with bullets to the chest and head. The most devastating was the death of Snowlin, a 17-year-old girl who was shot in the face.
Karnan also brought in an important fourth aspect of how most suicides are nothing but state-sanctioned murders. The death of the grandfather in the end is shown and told as murder, and rightly so. From Rohith Vemula to Dr Payal Tadvi and other nameless thousands, all of them were state-sanctioned murders because the perpetrators are left free. Nothing happens to the system that supports these casteist murderers, makes excuses for them, exonerates them even before the law can take its course.
The fifth and the most unspoken state-sanctioned violence that is portrayed very well in Karnan is the loot and destruction of property and the will to fight. The cop in Karnan actively destroys more property in the bus and the police station than what was initially done by Danush and his men. He does this specifically so that he can exaggerate the extent of property damage to his higher-ups and hopes he will get the license for stricter action. There is also a scene where cops tear the certificates of a girl who was hoping to get into college. This scene was depicted as exactly as it happened to many youngsters during the 1995 Kodiyankulam violence. There was property damage, they looted the village with loads of vehicles and the things that could not be carried away were thrown into a well. The well was also poisoned because they knew that this was the only source of water. All of this was state-sanctioned and never spoken of.
The Myth of Merit
Two scenes from Karnan tore through the screens.
The army selection race
There has never been a scene in the entirety of Tamil cinema that conveyed a strong explanation for how stupid the concept of merit is with such few words. Typically in such race scenes, we've only seen the hero rip across the finish like with close-up shots of his biceps and eyes bulging out in a flood of testosterone. Here, Karnan barely makes it while a rope is pulled across the track to cut off the rest of the runners. He sits back and watches the rejected man falling at the selector's feet.
This scene was not about the race but everything that happened until the race started. There was no track that Karnan practiced on, no fancy vehicle to drop him at the army grounds. He had to wake up before the sun, stand for hours for a bus and when he couldn't find one, he gets on a truck and has to stand under the harsh sun for a race. While everyone else would say that they too stood in the sun and put everything into running the race, they don't understand that there are a lot of Karnans who have to give everything . We have to almost die every time to just get an education, just to get at the gates of a college. Next time you say the words 'work hard' rethink its definition through the struggles of the have-nots.
That look on Karnan's face after the race shows how there is no celebration for people like us who've just made it, there is just survivor's guilt.
The death of grandfather
Suicide is considered to be cowardice. Suicide is considered to be throwing away life. Yet, in this movie, the suicide of the grandfather shows how that might be the only way the world will ever talk about this incident, or will ever know about the injustice that happened. Because history has no place for the oppressed and the state has more than enough power to wipe out anything they don't want to be recorded. Suicides are pretty common in oppressed communities not just because of the oppression but also as an act to just tell our stories.
I go back to the death of Anitha, who died because her dream of becoming a doctor was shattered through an oppressive exam called NEET. The image of her standing in front of the Supreme Court still reminds me of how this state failed her. Some privileged children can pay tens of lakhs to get into NEET coaching centres, what happens to kids like Anitha who have had to sacrifice so much to just get into school? Most importantly, without her death, do you think we would still be talking about it? Her suicide created the first agitation against NEET in Tamil Nadu.
In an ideal world, it shouldn't take these suicides for someone to know that these imaginary systems of merit are oppressive.
There can be much more written on other aspects of Karnan including its cinematography, casting, and other technicalities but I want to highlight the music of Santosh Naryanan and the layers it gives to folk music. In an industry that has done nothing but dilute folk for item songs and the hero's entry sequence, Santosh Naryanan adds such wonderful insight into the music of Karnan that it turns it into such a powerful tool for storytelling. There is celebration, there is anger, there is powerful romance, there is sadness, there is joy and there is assertion in Narayanan's folk tunes.
Karnan is still about education, about upliftment, most critics and people with opposing ideas want to limit Karnan to its violence but the truth is farther away. Education in the hands of the oppressed scares the oppressors, assertion of the right to exist as equal threatens them. This is why it is met with such violence, in the hope that it would serve as an example. Rebutting violence for survival cannot be condemned.
Mari Selvaraj's Karnan also reminded everyone of how easy it is to upset a casteist society. With such amazing films more Karnans will come up and dance on the streets, get into colleges, into big institutions, into bigger cars, and costlier clothes that seem so unaffordable like elephants. Let the eyes that see the marginalised either be filled with happiness or boil and melt away with all that anger. We will not fit into your moulds anymore.
For there will always be countless Karnans.
(Daniel Sukumar is a writer and a celebrated spoken word poet. His passion lies in writing extensively about caste inequalities, mental health, and social injustice. This is an opinion piece, and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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